GLIDING IN GUNMA

Up, up and away

by Joseph Badtke-Berkow

For the length of the Occupation of Japan, from defeat in 1945 to the return of sovereignty in 1952, the skies belonged to the Allies.

Among the less well-known punitive measures implemented by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the American GHQ from their roost in the Daiichi Seimei Building in Marunouchi was a complete ban on Japanese civil, and of course military, aviation, as well as airplane research, development and manufacturing of any kind.

Though it was just one of a long list of humiliating prohibitions that was part and parcel of Japan’s complete and unconditional surrender, the aviation ban must have been particularly painful.

Only a few years before, already legendary Japanese Zeros were the terror of the Pacific, leading the young and proud soldiers of the Imperial Army to victories far and wide. The iconic Hinomaru national flag itself was a symbol of a nation in flight, in the process of rising to a high point that for a time seemed to have no limit.

In the end, the domestic Japanese aircraft industry never really recovered from the effects of the ban and today the vast majority of commercial and military aircraft operating in this country’s busy skies are made by North American and European companies (though many parts used in Boeing airplanes are supplied by Japanese firms like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries).

Some even go so far as to credit the current dominance of Japanese automobile makers to the fact that the engineering skills and sprit of innovation that once made Japan’s aerospace industry one of the most impressive in the world after the war quickly and permanently migrated to the unrestrained automobile sector.

While the ban seems to have curbed the growth of potential homegrown civil aerospace companies in fundamental ways, it could do nothing to hinder the enthusiasm individual Japanese had for flight itself, as evidenced by a quick proliferation of flying schools and clubs in the immediate post-Occupation period, and of course the development of a thriving domestic and international civil-aviation market.

But long before jumbo jets filled to the brim with pensioners were taking off from Japanese cities bound for distant ports of call, the first return of Japanese citizens to the skies over their own country came in humble fashion on May 7, 1952, when the Japan Soaring Club (JSC), the country’s first postwar aviation organization of any kind, conducted a brief glider flight that failed to climb above 10 meters at the Tamagawa Speedway. Four days later they would do it again, a little higher, a little longer and in front of a crowd of over 20,000 spectators that had gathered in Tamagawa for the occasion.

Since 1961 the JSC has been conducting flights from their glider port in Itakura, Gunma Prefecture, making it the longest continuously operating aviation organization in Japanese history.

Located about 90-km north of Tokyo, the Itakura glider port consists of a long grass runway, a mobile command and communications post built into the back of an old service truck, a large hanger and a clubhouse housing the JSC’s impressive stash of aviation memorabilia.

Each weekend and on many holidays dozens of sleek gliders are pulled onto the field by some of the club’s 150 members, who come from all walks — students, lawyers, cooks, engineers, commercial airline pilots, businessmen and women — and all are brought together by a shared passion for flight. Most members own or co-own an aircraft, but the club maintains several of its own, including three two-seater gliders that are used for training purposes.

The club offers instruction courses in glider flying to interested beginners or those hoping to earn their flight certification, as well as one-time flights for visitors for 11,500 yen, which includes a fuel surcharge for reaching a release altitude of 600 meters.

The JSC operates a small single-prop airplane, which tows the gliders to a release point as high as 1,800 meters. After detaching from the tow, many pilots will keep their aircraft aloft for hours afterward, gently riding the currents that race high above the Kanto Plain.

Peak season for flying is from February to June when the cool and steady northern currents from Siberia create ideal conditions for cross-country soaring, but thanks to the mild climate of the area flights are operated all year-round.

For visitors who arrive here to strap themselves into the nose of one of the club’s two-seat training gliders, with a certified pilot (speaking English if you require it) at the helm behind, the experience of soaring 600 meters above Gunma’s rice fields with a view of Tokyo Bay (weather permitting) glittering in the distance is unspeakably cool.

Gliding is to flight as sailing is to sea travel. Reaching the designated release altitude and pulling the lever that detaches the cable connecting your glider to the tow-plane is akin to the moment on a sailboat when, with his sails out, the captain cuts the engine and the vessel seems to fall for a moment, before gently rebounding, rising up on the back of some giant and previously unseen force.

When you swallow that knot in your throat and your heart rate returns to somewhere near normal, you may well realize that flying has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning.